Ramonita Vargas is the heart of the Spanish American Committee (SAC), a 56-year-old nonprofit organization that is Ohio’s first and largest Hispanic social service agency. Vargas has been CEO since 2010. She is the longest-serving CEO in SAC’s history.
Next April, Vargas will celebrate 40 years with SAC. Her accounting and organizational skills, plus her passion for her heritage and work, took her to the top. She inherited a nonprofit that was $200,000 in debt and whose reputation was far from pristine. Now, she guides a $1.1 million budget for a respected agency. More than anything, Vargas says she thinks she has been successful because she understands and knows the agency from the ground up.
“I grew up poor, and my mother raised seven children by herself in a two-bedroom house,” she says. “I know what it is like to be hungry, to go to school without proper clothes.”
During her involvement with SAC, Vargas has seen waves of seemingly overwhelming need. One occurred in the early 1980s when Cuban revolutionary and politician Fidel Castro released thousands of emigrants, many of whom fled to America. A number of them included people from prisons.
“We had a lobby full of Cubans who didn’t know where they were going or what they were going to do,” recalls Vargas.
SAC also provided aid to 2,960 evacuees after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, and a year later another 500 families whose lives were devastated by earthquakes. Today, the agency serves all of Latin America. Most individuals and families who come for help do not speak English and require immediate assistance with housing, employment and basic necessities.
“We are a surviving organization,” says Vargas proudly, noting that SAC serves more than 5,000 individuals annually. “Many times we didn’t have the funding to have enough staff to service all of the people who walked through our doors. But we never turned anyone away. At the moment, we have homeless issues, senior issues, people who want to work but who must learn English first.”
Among SAC’s newest projects is the Latino Construction Program, which partners with trade unions, associations, builders and other players to provide training and jobs for Hispanic workers. The collaboration also helps lessen the significant labor shortage in the building industry.
“I am not going to be here much longer. I need to plan what I am going to do with the next chapter of my life,” says Vargas, who looks forward to more jazzercise and walking time. “But I know the committee will always be here if there is a need. I don’t know where the Hispanic community would go if we weren’t open.”